Rugby World Cup grieving

So you know when you’re in the place you go to have your hair cut, and two of the women who work there (both recent migrants to Aotearoa from parts of the world which do not play rugby) spend the time they are washing your hair talking about disappointing French back-play?

Or you get a status update (yes, I do check occasionally, my poor neglected Facebook friends) from the stroppiest of your sports-hating feminist mates about how much they are looking forward to the final?

I’m not going to bore those who hate rugby with why I love sport. I’m certainly never going to excuse the cultural supports to violence which rugby provides.

But I think this tournament has allowed many people living here to enjoy identifying with all the rugby-playing countries they are affiliated to through whakapapa. My Newtown street is covered in Manu Samoa and Tongan flags, I have friends with Irish and Welsh flags flying proudly, and of course the Silver Fern is everywhere. Given how full of hate flag waving can be, our ability, as a country, to hold these complex belongings is something to be deeply proud of. I remember living in Lewisham, London, during one football Euro Champs, Turkey beating England, and the Turkish laundromat around the corner being trashed beyond repair because clearly being both Turkish and English was impossible.

This tournament, on a very personal level, has also allowed me to grieve for my sports-mad mother, who died in July, in beautiful ways. My first sports memory, aged seven, is my Mum jumping on top of our sofa, screaming “Batty, Batty” at the top of her voice while rhythmically clapping her hand to her thigh, during a famous All Blacks victory over the British Lions at Athletic Park. Mum lived without full motor control of her left hand side, in constant pain – watching her move atypically like that started my love affair with sport.

Every game I’ve watched this Rugby World Cup, I’ve thought of Mum. Missed her explaining the history of every anthem before the game, because nationhood fascinated her. Missed her excitement at wonderful play, and her teasing my father about his one-eyed Cantabrian pride. She would have loved all the upsets – Tonga beating France, Ireland beating Australia, and perhaps most of all, Canada, her country of birth, beating Tonga.

This Rugby World Cup has been a route in to grieving with my father. He is bereft, in so much agony I just want to hold him until it’s gone. He is living on automatic pilot, as best he can, while he tries to imagine and live life without the person he loved for more than 43 years. The best times Dad and I have had over the last couple of months have been watching rugby games “Mum would have loved that.” The space of the games has allowed my emotionally reserved father to talk about the gap where Mum used to be without being more open than he can manage.

I’m sure it’s not what the International Rugby Board had in mind, but it’s made this RWC poignant and special for me.

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